Colombia goes into its final group stage game against Japan Tuesday already guaranteed a place in the elimination round.
With six points, “Los Cafeteros” currently enjoy sole possession of first place in Group C, and a win or tie against the Japanese would ensure Colombia goes into the round of eight with the top seat. Even with a loss, anything but a win for the Ivory Coast against Greece would see Colombia through in first.
Not that any of that should matter at this point. Apparently having missed the memo informing the rest of the world that it was not supposed to score a goal in Brazil, Costa Rica has somehow managed to emerge as the leader in Group D, arguably the toughest in the tournament. Coming in first for Colombia would therefore mean squaring off against Italy and Andrea Pirlo or Uruguay and Luis Suarez, a much scarier prospect than even an utterly fearless “Los Ticos” side, underdog swagger notwithstanding.
This is dangerous territory. This is when you start openly considering the upside of throwing games in a World Cup, scheming about how to break 24 years of pent-up juju in the interest of rigging the tournament algebra. The Japan game is meaningless from a strategic standpoint and, for that very reason, the best opportunity yet to understand the mindset Colombia is bringing into this tournament.
So far, the Cafeteros have been focused in a way most of the other early favorites haven’t. There’s been none of the complacency that made the Spanish the first team to be eliminated from a tournament they won four years ago, none of the nervy jitters that have rendered Argentina dependent on the late-game heroics of a surprisingly disinterested Lionel “He Has Risen” Messi. Colombia came to play in this World Cup, its first in 16 years, and has delivered results with an encouraging combination of grit and execution.
A confident team would start looking ahead to the next round, and for a team as deep as Colombia, that shouldn’t mean any form of letdown.
Coming off a decisive substitution goal, Juan Fernando Quintero would be a good choice to replace fellow lefty wunderkind James Rodriguez at the vortex of the Colombian attack, giving one of the best players of the tournament to date a chance to rest up and stay healthy. Quintero isn’t much of a step down from his former teammate and stylistic doppelganger, no matter what the setting. And with advancement already a certainty, letting Thing 2 play himself into a rhythm while Thing 1 rests is an investment in both that could pay dividends down the road in the tournament.
Captain Mario Alberto Yepes has been a rock for the Colombian backline, but he’s also roughly as old as one, and especially after taking a knee to the thigh late in Colombia’s 2-1 win over the Ivory Coast last Thursday, Yepes could probably use a few days of sponge baths and prune juice himself.
Carlos Sanchez will likely sit things out, too, as the holding midfielder picked up a yellow card against Greece during the course of his usual mission of making life generally miserable for anyone hoping to come through the Colombian middle. And there has been talk that Faryd Mondragon will become the oldest player to step on the field in World Cup history, coming in for the excellent David Ospina at goal three days after his 43rd birthday.
Sanchez’s absence means we will likely be stuck with “Not Very” Abel Aguilar in the midfield come Tuesday, playing alongside, rumor has it, Fredy Guarin, who has yet to make his first appearance in this tournament despite being an expected starter. But if Jose Nestor Pekerman doesn’t use this game to give someone else a run at striker, it would confirm every weird conspiracy that has ever been floated in a thus-far useless attempt to justify Teofilo Gutierrez’s supremacy over the deepest striker pool in the tournament.
Whatever Pekerman decides to do with the lineup, Colombia will be putting forth a strong team against Japan, which is good, because Japan has a strong team waiting for it.
As they have in previous tournaments, the Japanese have struggled to secure results commensurate with the quality of their soccer, known for disciplined spacing and an efficient, technically flawless passing game. Japan got out-bodied by a ferocious Ivorian attack in its first game and out-uglied by the Greeks in one of the strangest, least entertaining games of the group stage. But we have not seen nearly the best of a front four that can build play through Yahsuito Endo and the understated brilliance of Shinji Kagawa, and attack on the wing speed of Yuya Osaka and Keisuke Honda, who’s already unloaded one lefty cannon blast in this tournament.
Colombia’s depth down the wings should open up scoring chances against a Japanese defense that has proved weak in the air, especially if Jackson Martinez can find the light of day out from beneath Teo and his inexplicably large shadow. And the patient Japanese attack will be a good test for a midfield that has shown itself susceptible to rotational breakdowns and struggled to slow play when the moment calls for it.
Colombia should win Tuesday but doesn’t need to. After 16 years of anxiety, the pressure is finally off for Los Cafeteros. And that could tell us a lot about how they’ll perform when it’s not.